LA SERENA 1997
-Augusto was a great man –proclaimed Juan in one of their first conversations. He was pointing to a picture of a swollen-cheek, white-haired general hanging from the rear-view mirror of his truck.
Surely, he can’t have been that great with a name like Augusto –thought Jeremy to himself.
He had been too obsessed with beer parties and pulling university students to take a more conscientious interest in the history and politics of South America before arriving to La Serena in the final months of 1997. Even his second year of Latin American studies had not been reason enough to make him take an interest beyond passing an exam. He did not have a clue who Augusto was. He had chosen Chile because …. Um? In reality he did not have a clue why he had chosen Chile. He was drawn to its shape on the map he supposed: famished and long like his favourite Indie rock stars. There was also some kind of academic treaty between the University of Leeds and La Serena University which had allowed him to apply for a placement there for his year out. It was supposed to be a way to improve his Spanish language skills. But he did not care much about his studies. In truth Jeremy just wanted to get away, depart quickly from the grimy streets of Leeds and those 48 hour Rave parties he didn’t seem to be able to avoid. The drugs had got to him the year and there was also some kind of heartache he was trying to forget. Some land in the butt hole of Latin America seemed a good place to forget, as good as anywhere else. He liked the fact that it was far, so unimaginably far that it was November there and summer was about to descend. The nights were already getting warm and the skies were immaculately pure and clear, clearer than he ever imagined a sky could be. There was never that kind of sky, definitely not for that long, in the kingdom of Yorkshire. He had not known there were places in the world which did not share the same winter as The UK. It blew his mind: Christmas in swimming trunks!
Juan had picked him up from the airport at Santiago and the seven hour journey by car served to start to make a mental picture of the peculiar Chilean. Juan was a short and stocky ex-military sergeant obsessed with Great Britain and the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. He was delighted when he saw Jeremy was white and blonde, the archetype of Englishness in his mind. He himself was of native descent and saw white European people as a kind of paradigm of future law and order, a symbol of progress and Platonic perfection. He repeated twice in the first three hours of their acquaintance that there was not a drop of Mapuche blood in his veins.
-If only I had married the Iron Lady. Look at my wife she is a great woman but she’s the colour of coffee.
He was pointing at another photo hanging beside the picture of the general. Jeremy did not know how to respond. He had never met anyone who professed anything other than a deep-seeded hatred towards the ex-prime minister and he didn’t even consider himself white. Not economically anyways. He came from a dire housing estate in Beeston, outside Leeds. He nodded awkwardly and muttered in his broken Spanish.
-¿Dónde está La Serena?
-Near. Near. Seven hours is nothing for Chile. From Punta Arena to Arica you would driving non-stop for seven days.
-Seven days? You would end up in Russia from Leeds.
-Jodidos comunistas –muttered Juan.
Jeremy had not witnessed so much light and space in Yorkshire either. It was as if suddenly the Pacific stretched his eyes and made him realise, after twenty years, that his vision could extend itself in a 360 degree radius for a longer distance than ever imagined. He stared into the horizon and watched his thoughts gander away like helium balloons. He felt hazy and weird during the whole road trip to La Serena. It was like being in a child’s dream with the soundtrack of Juan’s Anglophile obsession in the background. He spoke about an England Jeremy had never known or experienced. He spoke about Churchill, pride, the empire, progress, high standards of living, imperial stadiums, banking success stories, honour, class, politeness. Jeremy hardly said a word. It was as if Juan was the alien in a faraway country and it was Jeremy’s responsibility to show him around and explain to him the real catastrophic nature of the land. He wanted to take to him to the derelict Council houses in Leeds where youngsters smoked glue and terrorised the social workers. He wanted to show him the queues at the Job Centre and the violent quarrels at the pub but he could not be arsed at that moment. He looked out of the window of the old Chervolet 200 and tried to zone off. Juan’s English was very accomplished but Jeremy wished he did not understand a word. This was not the Chile he expected and yet looking out of the window at the desert yellow sands and diaphanous blue skies, he decided there was not a more virgin and beautiful land in the planet. Even Juan’s erratic dialogue could not deter him from feeling he was witnessing natural beauty for the first time. He closed his eyes, risking coming across as an impertinent brat and tried to sleep. Juan kept on babbling in the background for the following seven hours. He kept on complaining about the lack of service stations. Jeremy pretended he was asleep. If only Juan knew the last thing he wanted was to see a BP. If only the English had stayed where they were.